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Starting Strength in the Real World

The Most Important Lift of My Life, Or How To Answer the Question “Strong Enough?”

by Tom Bailey | August 02, 2018

tom bailey and his father

I spend a lot of time, perhaps way too much time, attempting to answer the important question posed by Coach Rippetoe: Am I strong enough? Most 52-year-old men such as myself may struggle with all sorts of existential questions in a midlife crisis, so I guess I am fortunate that I do not seek to answer Man’s Search for Meaning at this stage of my life. Victor Frankl answered that question for me rather poignantly. Life is about being of service to others, and I train for strength for the benefit to others, a theme we will explore in this article. That’s a lot of words to express the importance of strength in making me “more useful in general.”

I just want to be able to confidently answer the question so that when my strength is truly needed, I can successfully exert the required force against an external resistance – whatever that resistance may be, wherever it may be. So my attempt to answer the question must deal with a single rep and not sets across. However, the single rep does not need to be a PR, it simply needs to be the successful completion of the most important rep of your life.

I have learned that some reps are more important than others. I can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt what the most important lift of my life was. It did not happen in a power rack or deadlift platform. Heck, a barbell was not even used. No belt, no chalk, no lifting shoes. And there were certainly no warm up sets.

Seems strange considering the programs we follow in Starting Strength, whether Novice, Advanced Novice, or Texas Method generally use “Fahves” (or sometimes sets of threes for us older folk) as the best way to build strength. Under such a structure, what defines the importance of any rep over another? Is it the first rep of the first set? The last grueling rep of the third and final work set? The last warmup rep before the start of work sets? Until very recently, the question of my most important lift was more philosophical than practical.

I have had some really fun and memorable lifts both inside and outside of the gym, but I cannot categorize these as truly important. The “Daddy Elevator” remains one of my favorite strength movements which started when my twins were small. They would beg for Daddy Elevator right before bedtime, requiring me to carry them together up a flight of stairs to their bedrooms. Not unlike Milo carrying the calf, it made me stronger as they got bigger, finally requiring me to carry just one at a time. Even now, as they approach 13, they sometimes surprise me by asking for Daddy Elevator just for old time’s sake, because they don’t think their Old Man still has it. It’s fun, it builds strength, but it is not the most important lift of my life.

For context, allow me to frame the question by providing the definition of the most important lift of your life. It must meet each of the following three conditions:

  • It must be life changing; your life cannot be the same after as it was before the lift.
  • It must unconditionally affirm the value of strength in your life.
  • It must be for the benefit of others, and not for ego or personal gain.

Some reps are memorable, and are important milestones on the journey of strength training. I remember the first time I completed a set of fives with three wheels on each end of the barbell, a 315-pound deadlift set which at the time seemed like a Herculean effort. Or my first 315-pound squat to full depth, a single which felt like it would break me. Even just thinking about my first 135-pound press to lockout still makes me smile. I remember when I achieved each one of these, and more advanced lifters will certainly have reps much heavier than mine. The weight is irrelevant; it is the pride that comes from accomplishing a challenging strength goal that makes it memorable.

They were strength milestones. A properly programmed strength program followed consistently will have days where a milestone rep or set or volume is reached. Those milestone reps also drive my progress, further motivating me to get stronger. They matter because of all the hard work that goes into it. But they do not meet each of the three conditions.

The most important lift of my life happened two nights ago, just days after finally receiving my much awaited copy of The Barbell Prescription by Dr. Jonathan Sullivan and Andy Baker. I had been looking forward to it for some time, and prior to its arrival I had been absorbed in the works of Nassim Taleb – the very same Nassim Taleb who contributed the forward to The Barbell Prescription ("TBP"). After digesting Taleb's books Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan, I was halfway through Antifragile when TBP arrived. Antifragile, while very appropriate to the discussion at hand, would have to wait, with all due respect to Mr. Taleb.

I was fortunate to discover Mark Rippetoe’s writings in middle age. I seem to constantly flip through Starting Strength 3rd ed. and Practical Programming 3rd ed., always learning more each time. Whether visualizing moment arms or reading about the General Adaptation Syndrome, these two books have created the foundation of my strength program and knowledge. I want to frame two sentences from the introduction of Starting Strength and hang it on my wall: “Physical strength is the most important thing in life. This is true whether we want it to be or not.”

The Barbell Prescription seemed to be written for me, as I selfishly consider myself at age 52 to be the target demographic of the book. Little did I know that as I sat reading The Barbell Prescription on an unusually quiet night at home (kids doing homework, no games or practices, and my wife making dinner) that the Sick Aging Phenotype and its antidote, or better yet, its preventative medicine – strength – would be made clear to me in a very emotional and painful way. It also brought home the author’s point that the genome, that which is genetically shared, does not need to define the phenotype, its physical expression.

My phone rang, and the cell phone showed it was my stepmom. I quickly answered it, because when you have aging parents with health issues you always take the call, just in case. “Tom, your father just fell, and he can’t get up, I can’t lift him up, he’s just laying on the floor. He was walking with his cane, his knees just buckled, and I sort of caught him as he fell back, but he is laying on the floor. He is too heavy for me! Can you come and lift him up?” I put the book on the coffee table, verified that there was no need for EMS due to injuries, and quickly drove over, arriving in 10 minutes. My stepmom opened the door, and as I entered the living room, there was my father, just as described: helpless, laying on the floor, unable to get up.

My 82-year-old father by the same name, “the older, more handsome Tom Bailey,” as he used to say to me, looked so much more frail and atrophied than ever. Somehow I still remember him as a strapping 6’2” 200-pound man who was bigger, stronger, faster, and physically imposing to me decades before. Now the genotype expresses itself differently, as he is unable to walk or to get out of a chair. My father and I share the same name, the same white hair, same blue eyes, and to a certain degree, the same genome. His DNA is clearly part of my DNA. As he battles advanced Alzheimer’s Disease, he has been ravaged neurologically and physically. My heart breaks when I hug him on his good days; at that moment my heartache was beyond repair.

Lifting my father up from the floor, carrying him to the chair (no more cane, no more walker for him anymore) was simply the most important lift of my life. Although submaximal, it was much more difficult than I anticipated: lifting a human body by yourself from the floor can be difficult, a partially dynamic load with a shifting and unstable center of gravity, and damn near impossible to keep a "vertical bar path.” But even in times of sadness there is humor, for I wanted to ensure my form was good. Somehow I remembered to keep my hips high, shoulders back, chest up, and lift with a neutral back. Even the thought of what a moment diagram would look like came to mind as I lifted my father.

I drew a Valsalva and pushed my feet through the floor as I lovingly and gently lifted him from the carpet into a wheelchair.

If we had a picture of that moment, a snapshot of an 82-year-old father and a 50-year-old son, of intergenerational genome transfer, of the helpless, older, more handsome Tom Bailey being lifted hard but then held gently by the younger Tom Bailey, we see a living example of The Barbell Prescription, that of strength counteracting the effects of the Sick Aging Phenotype. An oversimplification, obviously, but the prescription, the strength, and the signs and symptoms of the Sick Aging Phenotype were very visible to me as I made him comfortable in his chair.

Before leaving I gave him a hug and kiss as I said, “I love you Dad. You’ll be okay.” But somehow I don’t think any of this will be okay or end well. I can’t pretend there will be a positive medical outcome to this morass of atrophy and degenerative physical and neurological disease – the reality is that an “interminable purgatory” (as Dr. Jonathan Sullivan describes it) awaits. The suffering is not limited to my father, as the larger circle of a loving wife, children, and extended family all live through this.

Look, maybe it was not as dramatic as it sounds. After all, I guess that we could have called an ambulance or the fire department for “help” lifting my father off the floor. It wasn’t like I was carrying a wounded soldier with a fully loaded ruck to safety. I wasn’t hauling people out of the floodwaters of Houston into a boat. But it was my moment, and my strength, and my own frail and powerless father who was the external force which needed to be moved. How would it have felt if I had to look down into my father’s eyes and say, “Dad, hold on, I can’t lift you off the floor right now by myself. We need to call someone strong. I know I may look like a fully grown male, but believe me, my big chest is just for show, and my pencil legs are pretty useless when it really matters. So let’s just wait a while until we find someone strong enough. You understand, Dad, don’t you?”

So I know better than to listen to silly bullshit about “functional training.” No bosu ball, one-legged whatever-the-hells-they-are performed inside a Smith machine holding shiny dumbbells. Forget this nonsense about “domains of fitness” – there is only one reason I was able to exert sufficient force against an external resistance when it mattered. It was and is the sets of fives under the barbell, squatting, pulling from the floor, and presses. It was the strength obtained from following the program.

Can I still give “Daddy Elevator” rides to my kids as they approach 13 and I approach 52? Hell yeah, but only one at a time now. Can I hang with the young guys at work, and the young guys in the gym? Most of the time. I can answer the question “Strong Enough?” because when life demands it, am I ready to exert force against an external object, if and when that external object is a loved one who desperately needs my love as expressed through my physical strength. Hell yeah! I am strong now, and you can bet I will keep training to keep getting even stronger. Stronger is better.

And I have the Starting Strength program to thank for that. And my family does too.

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